When Janet Wolter, MD, first began practicing medicine, the polio vaccine hadn’t yet been discovered, and cancer was so feared that it wasn’t discussed openly.
By the time she retired as Brian Piccolo Chair of Cancer Research and professor of internal medicine at Rush at the end of November 2009, Wolter had provided thousands of cancer patients with hope and made important contributions to the advances that have transformed cancer care and outcomes.
To honor Wolter, Rush is hosting a seminar of former residents and fellows on Feb. 27 and will name a new teaching area after her. The Janet Wolter, MD, Clinical and Educational Conference Room will provide a comfortable, high-tech home for the education of residents and fellows and for collaboration among clinicians of various specialties. The room will be built as part of the renovation of the 10th floor of the Professional Building later this year to house Rush’s new outpatient cancer center. The educational focus of these tributes reflects Wolter’s enduring influence on generations of physicians.
“She served as a role model, for me and many other oncologists who trained at Rush; for our internal medicine residents and students; and especially for many female physicians,” says Philip Bonomi, MD, Alice Pirie Wirtz professor of medical oncology and director of hematology-oncology at Rush, who trained with Wolter as an oncology fellow. “She’s a very fastidious physician who has taken excellent care of patients. There’s no one better,” Bonomi continues. “On Monday mornings, the oncology team goes through new cases, and to this day her remarks are incredibly insightful and pertinent, not only in breast cancer but other cases.”
Seventh grade plans
A native of River Forest, Wolter declared her intention to be a doctor in a seventh grade essay. In the late 1940s, she first came to what would become Rush during a clerkship at Presbyterian Hospital while attending the University of Illinois College of Medicine. (Presbyterian eventually merged with both St. Luke’s Hospital and Rush Medical College to form what now is Rush University Medical Center.) World War II had just ended when she was accepted into medical school.
“A lot of the guys weren’t out of the service yet,” Wolter recalls. “In my class of 165, 21 were women, but the next year when everybody came back from the war, it went down to four women and 161 men.”
After receiving her medical degree in 1950, Wolter completed training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Duke University Hospital, the University of Illinois Research and Education Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital before joining the U of I faculty. There, she treated polio patients, who were confined in iron lungs that enabled them to breathe.
“All the equipment back then was big and rigid and heavy,” Wolter remembers. “We had no computers. Electrocardiograms (EKGs) were done on photographic paper, and every floor in a hospital had a darkroom where you’d develop the EKG.”
The advent of the polio vaccine in the mid-’50s eventually led to the end of her program, and Wolter joined the Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital faculty in 1963 to collaborate with pioneering physician Samuel G. Taylor III, MD, in his work treating cancer patients with hormones and chemotherapy. “It wasn’t even called oncology. There wasn’t even a name for it then,” she remembers. “There really wasn’t anything that could be called cancer care. If the surgeon couldn’t remove the tumor, that was it.”
Over the coming decades, the field advanced with the development of chemotherapy and radiation, hormone and targeted therapies. While her early experience included all kinds of cancer, Wolter’s primary focus has been breast cancer, an interest that ultimately led to her role in Rush opening the first comprehensive breast center in the Midwest. After remaining largely unchanged from 1930 to 1990, breast cancer death rates decreased by 27 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the American Cancer Society.
Making a difference: comprehensive care
One of Wolter’s greatest satisfactions is the role she’s played in this progress. She served on the executive committee and board of directors of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Program, a National Cancer Institute-supported cooperative group of researchers conducting clinical trials of cancer treatments, and she was the principal investigator for the Rush arm of the program from 1989 until January 2010.
“I’ve put hundreds of patients on their clinical trials, which helped us define not only what hormones are going to work and how long we should administer them, but all kinds of combinations of chemotherapy,” Wolter reflects. “These are things that nobody can claim as personal triumphs, but you get a lot of satisfaction from being part of the answer.” Bonomi credits Wolter with another important innovation in cancer care. “She had the idea of having nurse specialists in oncology working in tandem with oncologists and began training them 35 years ago or more, long before medicine had nurse practitioners,” he says. In addition, Wolter took the initiative in establishing the Rush Pigmented Lesion Clinic in the mid-1970s, and she served until her retirement as the clinic’s medical director. The multidisciplinary clinic provides preventive screening for skin cancer and sees about 500 patients a year. In treating her patients, Wolter combined the pursuit of medical advances with compassionate, personal attention. She routinely gave patients her home phone numbers — “they never abused it, and it meant so much to them” — and maintained an optimistic outlook.
“As soon as patients have a little bit of hope, they feel better,” Wolter notes. “She’s the ultimate doctor: She’s caring, she’s knowledgeable, she has a great sense of humor, and she’s always available,” says Juliana, a Chicagoan in her 40s who has been a patient of Wolter since being diagnosed with cancer in 1989. Juliana credits Wolter with keeping her alive and for tailoring her ongoing chemotherapy regimen to reduce its side effects and to give her more time with her husband and three children.
“There are no words to describe what she’s done for me and my family,” Juliana says. “She’s even met with each of my children individually to address their concerns. That’s how she treats all her patients. She makes each person feel special. Having her as a doctor fills you with hope and strength.” Wolter’s deep dedication to her patients kept her working 50-hour weeks into her 80s.
“I love it,” she says “All these people are so interesting, and they’re so grateful for whatever you do for them. It’s the most satisfying thing you can do.” Even in retirement, Wolter isn’t leaving Rush or medicine behind entirely. She plans to help the oncology research program with regulatory issues, working from her Chicago home.
“We’ve told her she can do as much or as little as she wants, and we hope she will continue to serve as an advisor,” Bonomi says. “She can’t be replaced, no question about it,” he adds. “But even though she may not be here, the things we’ve learned from her will continue to help us in taking care of patients, doing clinical research and maintaining the highest standard of integrity.”